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Dale Kretz, "Freedom's Paperwork"
During the American Civil War, the national government intervened in the South not only militarily but administratively. Indeed, federal officials produced a staggering amount of documentation on southern society—the records of one agency alone, the Freedmen’s Bureau, comprises nearly 1,500 linear feet at the National Archives. Especially prevalent in the historical record are accounts relating to formerly enslaved men and women. Yet the “testimony” recovered from freedpeople in these documents rarely comes to us directly but is rather filtered through a sieve of bureaucratic prerogatives imperfectly designed to make the postbellum South more “legible” to its federal overseers. Historians using these documents thereby risk replicating the state’s simplified vision of the complexities of black life. My brief talk will reverse the approach, asking what the very process of federal documentation—the lifeblood of the administrative state—“told” the former slaves themselves about their new government. How freedpeople confronted the very paperwork facilitating, regulating, and legitimizing their claims reveals a great deal about how they understood their new and beleaguered relationship to the dramatically modernizing federal administrative state.

Apr 7, 2021 12:00 PM in Central Time (US and Canada)

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